Intro to Transactional Emails

What makes for a beautiful experience of using a platform or an app? Interactive interfaces? Mind-blowing designs? Interesting copy? Maybe. But what most users really care about is getting stuff done – quickly buying a product, easily launching a website, smoothly implementing a feature. Since it’s impossible to follow every user on every step of their customer journey, companies incorporate transactional emails to automate the processes. Let’s explore what these emails really are about and how to make yours better very quickly.

What are transactional emails?

Transactional emails are messages that you often receive when using a product, website, mobile app, etc. They are triggered when a ‘transaction’ happens. In this context, transaction doesn’t refer only to the action of buying or selling an item as any dictionary would suggest. It also happens when you request a password reset, break a new record in your fitness app, or add a new card to your account. It can be literally any action and each can trigger a reaction.

What’s included in transactional emails?

When a transaction happens, an automated email can be sent to an address provided, usually at sign up. Such transactional emails can give you further guidelines or update you on your progress so far. They can be used to request a certain action from you or to inform you what just happened. They can also just welcome you to a platform, a mailing list or a new group, or bid you farewell when you decide to close an account. The opportunities are countless.

What’s the difference between transactional and marketing emails?

Marketing emails such as newsletters or product updates are typically sent in bulk with the same content delivered to all recipients, at the same time. Their goal is usually to recommend a product or feature or to get you interested in an upgrade of your subscription (or your 3-month-old sneakers). In other words – to sell you something.

Transactional messages, on the other hand, are one-off, event-driven notifications sent based on users’ activity on a platform. They can be properly personalized and arrive usually immediately after an event is triggered. When set up properly, they can make for a beautiful experience and get people attached to a brand and a product. And, according to various researches, transactional emails receive much higher open rates than marketing communications. This happens for a very simple reason – users actually want to receive them.

When to use transactional emails?

Here are some situations when a good ol’ triggered email would be appreciated:

  • A user requests a password reset and successfully resets one
  • They sign up on a platform or join a mailing list
  • A double opt-in is in place
  • A credit card has been added or removed
  • A user was verified (or, quite the opposite, a verification failed)
  • Someone used a vital feature and needs to know where to go next
  • And again the opposite – someone didn’t reach an important feature and needs to be directed there
  • A user has a new follower, someone liked their post, or sent them a message
  • A purchase is made and a receipt needs to be sent
  • Payment fails and an action is needed from a user
  • A trial period is about to expire and users need to be sold on a premium plan
  • Terms of service or any other legal files are amended

These are only a few examples. Of course, transactional emails will look very different for a Tinder-like app and for a government taxation platform. The key always is to carefully go through the entire customer journey and figure out where such triggers should be placed.

Why transactional emails are important?

First of all, many are simply necessary – password resets, 2-step verifications, failed payment notifications. Users need to receive them to be able to move forward. Others are maybe not must-have, but users, taught by the experience of using many other products, simply expect them. This includes order confirmations, credit card charge receipts, or just usual welcome emails sent moments after registration. Don’t send one and people will think right away that something is wrong.

In subscription-based products, transactional emails are meant to improve the user experience. Why? To get them to stay with you for longer, to use your product more, to be more successful. Unsurprisingly, this inevitably leads to better sales. The path from an initial sign up to purchasing an annual premium plan is a long and bumpy one. There are many things that can go wrong and, if Mr Murphy was right, sooner or later they will. It could be technical issues, confusing steps, lack of knowledge, or just insufficient motivation to complete a vital step. In-built notifications are often used to fix those issues on the spot and are well known for significantly decreasing the churn and improving the chance of customer success. 

For e-commerce businesses, transactional emails are also crucial for improving sales of a product. Companies often use those emails to chase clients who abandoned their carts or didn’t submit a payment on time. They even use casual order confirmations to upsell or at least raise buyer’s interest in a related product. Even a little effort in this field often goes a long way.

Best practices for using transactional emails

It’s not enough to just set up and send a few emails every now and then. Those who really succeed in the field spend many hours trying to understand their users and optimizing for this audience. We recommend that you do the same. Here are some tips for improving your transactional emails.

Think like a user, focus on their needs

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a user of your app or a visitor to your page. Don’t assume that something is obvious to them just because it’s obvious to you. You know the product inside out, and have likely been through each screen 184 times. Maybe you’ve even built it. Assume that visitors know even less than Jon Snow. Think where they may get lost, what could be hard to grasp for the target group. And fix it with the proper transactional emails. Focus on what users want to achieve, what their goals are. And make it easy for them to reach them.

Don’t send too many emails

Resist the temptation to set up tons of triggers on the way. Think where they’re essential and where they can make a lot of difference. Start small. If you observe a lot of support questions about a certain step or a low conversion on some step of a funnel, think whether adding some automated emails may help fix the problem. Adding an enormous number of emails will quickly flood users’ inboxes and make them unsubscribe (or worse, mark you as a spammer).

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Don’t solve problems with emails

Once you get the first results of your campaigns, you may feel the urge to address all issues this way. Don’t fall into this trap. If users successfully traverse several steps but then nearly all drop on the following one, sending an automatic follow-up email may not fix the problem. Analyze what the reason for a sudden drop could be. Maybe some bugs are preventing users from completing the process? Maybe something is counter-intuitive? Or maybe they were looking for something completely different and ended up in the wrong funnel? Even the best written email won’t fix such issues and implementing one will only give you false data about the success of your other campaigns.

Focus on timing

Figure out the best time to send a particular communication. Order confirmations should be sent right away, that’s a no-brainer. Should an invoice be generated simultaneously or maybe right after an order is delivered? When to remind visitors about an abandoned cart? In an hour, a day, or a week? How much time should you give a user to complete some step on a platform before you give them further tips? A day? Three days? Two weeks? Or maybe you shouldn’t bother them at all? There are no good answers to these questions as every website, app, and client base is different. You’ll need to figure out the answers on your own.

All the examples in this article come from, visit them for more amazing transactional emails.

Don’t sell, inform

Don’t be too pushy when trying to convince a recipient to upgrade or buy more. Remember, people usually want to receive transactional messages and, if they see they’re full of sales stuff, they’ll change their habits and may well stop reading other, more helpful messages from you. Try to include a gentle “people like you also buy…” section in the order confirmation or add as one of your tips a case study of another company using (with success ;-)) a feature you’re trying to sell.

Put the right subject line, make it unique

The topic of your email is the first thing that recipients will see. As a result, it will play a key role in their decision on whether to open it or not, if they spot it in the first place. Don’t give a boring “Useful tips” title to an amazing message with tons of valuable tips, it just isn’t right. Science (or just Return Path’s research) says that 60-70 characters in a title may be the sweet spot. Write something engaging but at the same time honest. 

Write an engaging copy

Make your copy interesting, even if you’re writing something boring. Try to build an emotional connection with readers, encourage their questions, share what your company has been up to. Make it a pleasure to read your emails and users will be looking forward to the next ones. Some may even share the best ones in the articles like this.

Personalize and state the reason for contact

Personalized messages often result in higher engagement from the users. While adding the recipient’s name at top of an email is obvious, you can go much further than that. Put a reference in the copy to the recent activity of a user and state why you’re emailing them. Try something like “You’ve just completed an important milestone – (…) Congrats! Now, you may want to try (…)”.

Keep it short and focused

Keep the emails short and straight to the point – this way you’ll increase the chance that someone will read through it all. If the hint you’re sending requires a longer explanation, write a blog post and link to it in your email. You have a very limited time of a reader’s attention – use it wisely.

Make it easy to unsubscribe

There may be people who are just not interested in reading your emails. Perhaps a purchasing department used their email address to buy a product for a development team and now you’re sending them tutorials. Maybe someone signed up for a new account but used the product extensively in the past, knows it inside out and doesn’t need your tips. Or possibly some people just don’t need your reminders about unfinished process and you’ll only annoy them if you continue spamming their inbox. There will always be a number of people who don’t want to hear from you even if they keep using your product or buying from your website. Make it very easy for them to leave the mailing list, otherwise they’ll find a different way to get rid of unwanted messages.

A/B test, over and over again

Once you implement all the tips above, test if they really work for your business. It may be that some won’t apply. Also, it’s likely you won’t guess at the first attempt where users could use some help or how to properly stalk those who abandoned their cart. Send different emails to different groups and see how they interact with them – are there more opens or clicks in either group? Does something work better for improving the conversion or decreasing churn? You won’t know until you test it.

Properly format each message

The copy is the most important bit, but it needs to be properly formatted too. Make sure your messages look good on different screen sizes and especially on mobile. Use your branding materials in every email, even in the dull ones like password reset instructions. Readers will learn to recognize your brand, which could go a long way.

Add Google’s Email Markup to your emails

Google lets you add Email Markup to your messages to add an action prompt to your email. This, as a result, lets users take an action without even opening a message and also improves the conversion. This way, users can RSVP to an event, confirm a subscription or quickly look up the order or shipping details. Of course, it won’t work for many use cases, but if could work for you – consider giving it a try.

Ensure your emails are delivered

Finally, all of the above tips will be in vain if your email doesn’t reach the inbox at all. And it can happen even for the most important emails such as order confirmations or password reset instructions. We’ve covered tips on improving deliverability in another article. Emails going to spam folders are also far from desired – read how to avoid such a fate here.

Inspect & Debug Your Emails

How to send transactional emails?

In order to send such notifications, you’ll need to connect with an external tool over their API. See our comparison of SendGrid, Mailgun and Mandrill or just go with any other service of your choice

There are dozens if not hundreds of platforms offering transactional emails. Among them, there’s a number of companies that specialize in strictly the transactional part. They typically offer more customization and more robust reporting and are probably a better choice if you only need to send event-driven notifications. There are also big brands that offer not only transactional emails but also purely marketing communication such as newsletters or other campaigns. If you’re in need of tools for all of that, consider them instead. You’ll find it easier to use one tool for all things email and it may also be better money-wise.

Here are some of the well-known brands for both categories:

Strictly transactional emails:

Transactional but also marketing emails:

Why you should test your emails and how to do it right?

Finally, let’s assume that you have chosen the tool, set up the right triggers, and configured the most effective emails to be sent at just the right time. Can you move on to other tasks now?

By all means, don’t. Actually, don’t send any communication before you test it first. There are many things that can go wrong:

  • Password reset links won’t work
  • Buyers won’t be able to download their invoice (or worse, they’ll download someone else’s!)
  • You’ll send some hints for completing an important steps days after a user reached this goal
  • The formatting of an email will make it impossible to read or click-through
  • You’ll let someone know that their card was declined when it was not

And these are only a few of the many examples. We strongly recommend that you test each message before it’s delivered to a real person.

You can do it with a fake SMTP server such as Mailtrap. It lets you send test emails without the risk of spamming real users. It also enables previewing each automated message as well as checking whether it’s likely to fall into spam folders. You can try Mailtrap for free and upgrade later if you need more functions.

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What is the difference between the two groups of email providers below:
ConvertKit, SendinBlue, Mailchimp, Mailerlite, GetResponse,
Mailgun, SendGrid, Armazon SES, Postmark, Pepipost, etc.?

What a great content here. Pretty easy to understand. Thanks!